Fireteam Freelance – Episode 1: Kamchatka

This is Episode 1 of Fireteam Freelance readers! The episode is beyond the jump to save anyone from spoilers, so hit it to get started! A list of all episodes can be found at the Fireteam Freelance page.

A reminder that all episodes of Fireteam Freelance are posted in pre-Alpha, pure draft state. As such there may be minor errors, typos, etc as a result of being pre-edit. But you’re getting it for free, so that’s the trade-off.

Kamchatka

“—wake up! You wanna … wake up!”

Ania let out a groan as her alarm drug her from her sleep. And not the softer, more calming alarm she’d chosen for when she’d actually planned to get up. That was a more laid back, calmer rock song, with a gradual lighting of the room. Not something hard with a bright, pulsating light that made her eyeballs feel like they wanted to shrivel up and crawl inside her head.

“Wake up!”

“—“ Apparently she wasn’t up to talking yet. What time is it? One arm shielding her eyes, she cracked one ever so slightly and tilted her head to one side. Twelve-fourteen? AM?

Her tired mind took a moment to connect the pieces. Not even one in the morning. I have to pee. And the special alarm is going.

Two of those things mean we have a mission.

Mission!

She jerked upright, blinking away the sand in her eyes and slapping her cheek to help bring alertness. A mission! She sprang from her bed, crossing the room to silence her still-blaring alarm with a single, bounding step. A job!

And an immediate one too, given the hour and the alert. Which meant it had to be offering a lot of money. Or be stupidly dangerous.

She grinned. Or both.

She shucked her nightwear off, hopping on one foot towards her bathroom and taking care of the first, and most urgent thing on her mind. I love the taste of beer, she thought as the frantic sensation in her abdomen faded, but it really does run right through me.

Granted, it was probably because she’d drunken somewhere around a dozen the night before. And because thanks to her augments, she couldn’t get drunk. Her enhanced physiology simply couldn’t let it happen.

A lot of drunks had been suckered into paying for free drinks while she drunk them under the table on that account.

Her viewscreen was flashing as she left the restroom, a message from the commander waiting for her on it. The kind that would send a notification back the moment she opened it and read it.

Damn, she thought, her finger hesitating over the screen for just a moment. This must really be a hot op.

She tapped the screen and skimmed through the message, a fire in her gut growing with each keyword she passed.

Hot op. Briefing. Rapid deployment. Yesterday.

Or, expanded, the fireteam had a hot mission that needed them to move now, so they were to show up for the briefing in skinsuits, ready to run right to the VTOL, so that they could move out as soon as physically possible, unless quicker was an option.

Ania “Anvil” grinned and closed the message. A hot op always means room for some extra boom. Seconds later, she was slathering herself with a lukewarm slick of contact gel, one foot already shimmying itself into her skinsuit. It was time to move.

Approximately thirty seconds later, Anvil burst through the door to the briefing room, still sealing the neck of her skinsuit with one hand. The room was fairly simple, if spacious, and occupied by a large, five-sided tactical table—though where the commander had found that, or if it had been custom made, she didn’t know.

The commander herself was standing at her customary place along one of the sides, at the ready despite the early hour and her disheveled apparel. Anvil took a quick glance at the other four sides … and scowled.

“Sorry, Anvil,” Adah said from the seat she’d chosen next to the commander. “I’m a light sleeper. Was even before the augs.”

Anvil shook her head. “One of these days, Adah,” she said, giving the commander a nod and then moving around the table to take up one of the other free seats. “How is it that no one ever stuck you with a call sign like ‘rabbit’ or ‘hare?’”

Adah gave her a shrug. “You got me. The list of nicks that don’t stick is almost as long as the list of my cousins.”

“Yeah, well one of these days we’re gonna find one, on it? Like … Lion.”

“Already been passed.”

“Dammit.”

“In fact, you’ve suggested it twice already.”

“Well then,” Anvil said, eyes flicking to the door and then to the commander. “Double dammit, on it?”

Before she’d even finished speaking the door opened again, this time admitting Owl, clad in her skinsuit and with a look of serene calm on her face, as if she’d simply stayed up rather than being rousted from bed barely two minutes earlier. She gave the commander a nod, glanced at both Adah and Anvil in kind, and then took a seat.

The seconds ticked past, and Anvil glanced at the door again. What’s keeping Ursa? It’s not like we just got off an op. And the mountain of a woman hadn’t gone out drinking with her the night before, but stayed behind to work out … which was often code for secretively contacting the family she still kept in touch with. Which probably meant that they were in hiding or wanted for one reason or another, but the unspoken rule seemed to be that you never brought it up. Like Ursa’s real name.

Almost twenty seconds later, the large woman arrived, one shoulder still outside her skinsuit. “Fakamolemole,” she said as she darted inside, speaking first in Tongan before switching to her more customary English. “I woke up tangled in my blankets and uh … had to rip my way free.”

“Apology accepted,” Commander Castillo said, keeping a carefully straight face. Which, Anvil decided, was probably better than the open grin she was giving the large woman. “It happens.”

“There wasn’t anyone else in those—“ Anvil began, only for the commander’s attention to snap to her with a severity.

Right. Hot op. “Sorry.”

Castillo nodded, then leaned forward. “Freelance, we have a mission.” She tapped one of the controls built into the emitter in the tac table, an image springing to life in the air above the table, translucent  and slowly rotating. A cityscape, from the look of it. With a compound in the center.

“This,” Castillo said, reaching out and touching a building at the very center of the compound, “is our objective. It’s a SoulComp regional data relay in Kamchatka.”

SoulComp? That company that’s been all over the news since Pisces came back online?

“As a data relay, everything, and I do mean everything,” Castillo continued. “Passed through this relay. As such, security protocol mandates that each relay keep a backup of everything that passes through it. Our client,” Castillo said as she looked back up at them, making eye contact, “has paid us a very large sum of money to destroy both the central datacore, and its backup.”

“A slash-and-burn op,” Adah said as she leaned forward. “Against SoulComp?”

“We’ll have full access codes and authorizations, which our client assures me are airtight,” the commander continued. “You’ll go in flagged as SoulComp security forces. I’ve already got the armory refitting your gear.”

“It sounds like a honey-trap,” Adah said. Anvil nodded, as did Ursa. “This is SoulComp. They’re one of the biggest megacorps in the world. You trust this source?”

“I do.” There was a tone to Castillo’s voice, a firmness that sent a shiver down Anvil’s back. “We’ve done work for them before. They’ve never failed us.”

“SoulComp could pay them a lot for their honesty,” Ursa pointed out.

“Agreed,” the commander said. “Except that as of an hour ago, they’re not SoulComp anymore.”

“What?” Anvil sat up. “Why? What happened?”

“Details are still scarce,” Castillo said, looking at her, “but as of an hour ago, the United Nations has taken complete and sole ownership of SoulComp.”

Silence. The bottom dropped out of Anvil’s gut as she stared at the commander. “No shit, on it?”

“No shit,” Castillo said, nodding. “That’s why it’s a hot op. The transfer of power is still ongoing, and from rumors coming out of Seattle, it’s not pretty. Whatever our client wants us to frag inside that data relay, they want it to happen before the UN get there and lay claim to it.”

“Shit. Shit shit shi—“

“Vade!”

She snapped her jaw shut as the commander’s eyes bored into her. “Sorry, commander.”

Castillo nodded. “We have full troop compliments, security protocols, patrol routes, clearance … everything.” Another tap on the map and the information began to pop up as she spoke. “The compound on the southeast side of Petropavlovsk, between these two mountain ranges, but they own most of the territory for a good half-mile in all directions. Data pipe enters here—“ A portion of the map flashed. “—and exits here.” Another flash. “The central archive is here, backup here.” Again two parts of the map flashed, both different buildings. Force compliment is several hundred, but most of them are standard recruit-security. Only fifty of them are clad in neural skinsuits. There are no exoskeletons of any kind recorded as being on the base. The compound is protected by two layers of defenses, automated ground turrets and anti-aircraft systems both.”

“Right, right …” Adah had risen now, leaning forward to examine the map. “We have clearance for these gates?”

“And the landing zone—“ Castillo began, but Adah shook her head.

“Too obvious. Our best bet is to insert ourselves so that we appear to already be members of the compound, rather than draw attention by coming in. Better to use that for an evac route. The moment we torch the cores, things are going to light up.”

“Let’s see …” Adah said, spinning the image of the compound with a flick of her hand. “Distance of a few hundred meters between the main datacore and the backups. Both in separate facilities, but the backup data core …” She expanded the image, the edges fading away into faint sparkles of light as the backup swelled. “Looks like a general purpose backup facility. One entrance. Backup generators and battery racks.”

She snapped the image back out, the full compound in view again. “This sector here looks like housing for the indentured employees, so we’ll want to avoid that. I don’t like the idea of civi casualties, unless they pull guns on us. But that writes off that part of the compound …” Again she zoomed back. “Owl, any preferences for a vantage point if we go over the wall here, here, or here?”

“There,” Owl said, rising and indicating a nearby high-rise. “From that roof I should have a clear line of fire over most of the compound. Angle’s a little steep, but nothing I can’t handle. I’ll be exposed, but camouflage should help mitigate the risk.” She took control of the map for a moment, zooming in on the structure in      question. “Looks like an old office farm, so it shouldn’t be occupied in the middle of the night.” Another tap at the top of the structure sent out a color gradient in the air, marking all the space in the compound she’d have a clear vantage of.

“Yes, that looks good. I can break during insertion and make my way there.”

“Best entrance for cover?”

“South side. Part of your approach will be blind, but I’ll have the best view of you once you’re over the wall.”

“Right.” Adah waved away Owl’s overlay, bringing the compound and their two flashing targets back into focus. Then her eyes locked with Anvil’s. “Anvil.”

She sat up. “Yeah?”

“Think you can handle the backup on your own?”

She eyed the facility and then nodded. “Yeah. We splitting?”

Adah nodded. “Ursa and I will head for the primary datacore. Our clearance should get us in and give us the opening we need to make sure it’s taken down. But the backup is going to be reinforced, and unless we can find the right clearance, we may not able to use what our client gave us to get in.”

“Controlled demo work.”

“Exactly.” Adah spun the backup unit toward her. “Think you can punch through that?”

She rose and studied the building for a moment. “Looks like fairly normal reinforced engineering but …” She tapped a thin line with one finger. “This might be a surprise of some kind. Given our target, probably composite reinforcing. Like you’d find in a bunker.”

“But you can cut it.”

She grinned and looked up. “Of course I can cut it. Let me bring the fun bag, and I can level the whole building.”

“Destroying the backup datacore will do fine.”

She shrugged. “I can bring a cutting torch on my suit that’ll do the trick. Or some real heavy-duty directional charges. Once we’re in, destroying a datacore isn’t hard. A few explosive charges tuned to the right frequency will reduce the hard storage to dust, with a nice electrical surge beforehand to make certain it’s toast.”

“So I can handle the backup easily enough,” she continued. “But if you and Ursa take the main datacore, there’s a chance that your cover will be blown as soon as the datacore is.” She slid the map over to the primary relay housing. “These security doors might lock despite your clearance once the core is taken down. You’ll need to bring cutting charges to make sure you can get out.”

“Through one of the doors?” Ursa asked.

“Or a wall.” She grinned. “Just make sure you pick one without a bunch of live wires, on it? Oh, and choose wisely, because you’ll probably only have enough charges for one cut unless you want to forgo other gear.”

“I can carry a few extra,” Ursa said. “I don’t mind the weight. I’ll skip a few grenades for a backup in case something goes wrong.”

“Okay then.” Adah pulled the map back. “We enter over the south wall, split, make our way to the cores, wreck them. As for extraction …”

“I can bring the Stalker down in the compound if needed,” Castillo said. “But it’d be risky, even with the proper clearance. All it would take is a single good look at our profile to realize that we’re not a standard SoulComp VTOL, and a tech with an itchy trigger finger to ground us.”

“However,” she continued. “I can easily bring it down over the mountains on either side, out of sight.”

“They may have sensors in place for that,” Owl cautioned.

“Sensors we can deal with.”

“Right. Call it when we’re ready, commander,” Adah said. “Each of us will break, go over the wall, and hopefully disappear into the surrounding city.” She stood up straight, looking right at Castillo. “Your approval, commander?”

“Approved.” Castillo waved on hand, the image above the table breaking apart. “You can fine-tune it in the air. Suit up and let’s get moving.”

*             *             *

The VTOL cut through the night like a knife, carving a path through the clouds with not apparent difficulty. Inside, Owl ran her hand down the barrel of her rifle once more, brushing at the metal with her thumb to rub away a blemish that was only in her mind.

It was a good rifle. Well-suited to the op. A KLP-Adder. Semi-automatic. Good for rapid, fast fire while still keeping a respectable amount of accuracy and minimal recoil. A very large magazine allowing for nineteen shots including the round in the chamber. Useless against a heavily armored target, and of only moderate use against even a neural skinsuit without special ammunition types, but against the fodder that made up the majority of the relay security force on-site, it’d be more than effective enough.

It wasn’t the only reason she’d chosen it, however. The Adder was a decent marksman’s rifle, but where it truly exceled was in its modularity. Rails and mounts were everywhere, and virtually any part of the rifle could be swapped out for another, or even sometimes forgone entirely. One famed video across the datanet had shown an insurgent stripping the weapon of even its barrel and rigged it to fire small shells, turning the bullpup rifle into a close-quarters roomsweeper. Of limited effectiveness, sure, but when you had no other option.

Hers, however, stayed a rifle, rarely modified save for minute changes. She’d made one of them tonight, however, adding in a complicated laser guidance system just below and forward of the scope.

A guidance system that was in turn keyed to the very capable man-portable launch platform sitting by her feet. An added form of insurance just in case something caught the team truly by surprise.

Like the compound’s garage holding more than their intel claimed. If their contact was correct, it held only two Dingo Feral-class APCs. Tough, armored, and the SoulComp security standard, but not as armored or dangerous as other APCs in their class.

Unless, of course, SoulComp had lied, even on their internal documentation.  It was possible. As was that the compound manager had “procured” other forms of armored defense off the books. Hence why Anvil was sitting with her heavy micro-missile rifle held in her armored hands, several boxy mags attached to the sides of her suit alongside her demolition gear. Overkill against fodder, but perfectly acceptable against an armored target. Up to an including neural skinsuit armor and exoskeletons.

Anvil was currently engaged in a conversation with Adah and Ursa, the three of them discussing the most unobtrusive way to reach their respective destinations. All four of them were now sporting a dark blue-and-gold color scheme to their armor, applied before they’d departed to make their deception easier, but that didn’t mean a close look wouldn’t give them away. Especially as according to official records, the compound had no exoskeletons on staff, which made Anvil’s silverback armor all the more obtrusive.

Not that Adah or Ursa were much better off. Their equipment was still nonstandard. A close look at either of them would be enough for a passerby to see that something was up. At which point it was all down the security of the clearance codes their contact had given them. If they passed muster, than a curious security officer would probably let them pass. If they no longer did …

Well, that’s when I do my job, Owl thought, running a hand down the barrel of her rifle once more and humming just low enough that her suite comms wouldn’t pick the tone up. Anvil, Adah, and Ursa were still discussing their route through the compound. Adah had even brought up a smaller version of the map they’d had at the briefing using the VTOL’s own emitters, and was going over possible routes compared to the data they’d been given, as well as with a few variables.

She listened to all of it, building her own mental map as they spoke. Tracking with her own mind where they’d be at each time relevant to her own position, and how much of an angle she’d have to provide supporting fire. Or how quickly she’d be able to shift targets between the two groups if needed.

A single spotter drone could do that. I really should name this one. The thought flitted through her head, a reminder that the newer of her two drones still lacked a moniker. Something I haven’t used yet, that pairs well with Vincent. Maybe another painter?

A project for later. It could still keep watch on one of the two groups while she watched the other.

Outside the VTOL, the viewscreens took on a darker cast as the craft began to descend, sliding down through the clouds. A moment later they broke through, and the viewscreens lit up, a dark ocean stretching in all directions around them, lit only by glimmers of moonlight.

Not for long, however, a dark line swelling on the distant horizon ahead of them. Land.

The western coast of the Kamchatka peninsula. And on the other side of it, their target.

“Land in sight.” Commander Castillo’s voice echoed through the cabin. “We’re five minutes out. I’ve got a nice drop site picked out to the northeast of the compound. Marking it.” The map Adah was looking at snapped out abruptly, highlighting a location inside Petropavlovsk. “Looks like an old factory field of some kind,” the commander continued. “But it’s more than enough space for me to land and drop you off. I’ll find a better hiding place once you’re out.”

“A little over two-point-five klicks from the compound straight,” Adah said. “Say, ten minutes on foot if we stick to less-occupied parts of the city.” Then she looked up. “Owl? What about you?”

“My destination is closer,” she said, eyeing her own objective. “I’ll be in position when you reach the south wall.”

“Good.”

Five minutes. A lot could happen in five minutes, but she focused on the important bits. A final weapons check, making sure that everything was cycling smoothly as she chambered a round into the Adder. Another comm check, not with the fireteam, but with the guided missile launch platform by her feet. A full system check on the platform’s systems as well.

Four minutes. She moved to the tripwire grenades attached to one side of her chest. All were locked in place and ready to be used. They looked odd against the new dark blue-and-gold color of her armor, freshly painted on just minutes before they’d departed.

I wonder if SoulComp will stick with the color, she thought as she began a methodical checking of each of the newly colored armor plates, making absolutely certain that none of her suit’s thrusters had been impacted by the change. Or if they’ll just become UN blue-and-white?

Hopefully it wouldn’t have already happened. Or they’d stick out like newly-trained undercover paps.

Then again, bureaucracy often moved slowly.

But not always.

Every thruster was clear, and she lowered the leg she’d been examining back to the deck. Three minutes.

She glanced across the cabin, eyeing the rest of the team. Adah and Ursa were both carrying out similar checks, the latter standing and eyeing each of her armor plates in sequence, while the former was giving her weapon one last look. Anvil, meanwhile, was standing so still she could have been a statue. A six-and-a-half foot statue colored in dark blue-and-gold and bristling with weapons, but a statue nonetheless.

Two minutes.

“Comms check,” Adah said, her voice sounding inside Owl’s helmet. “Sound off.”

“Ursa, comms checked.”

“Owl, comms checked,” Owl said, glancing at the tiny indicator on her hud and confirming that the encryption.

“Anvil, comms checked.”

“All right.” Adah stood, one hand grabbing to a bar that ran along the roof of the cabin. “Keep comms at a minimum. We’re encrypted but on a SoulComp frequency. The more we chatter, the more likely someone working security might get curious about why they can’t understand us. The last thing we need is them getting suspicious about it and taking a closer look.”

“The same goes for command,” Adah said. “We call out if we need an emergency evac or once the core and its backup have been slagged. Any communications before that might tip SoulComp security that something strange is going on.”

“Yeah, yeah.” Anvil moved at last, her armored head turning to look at Adah. “We know.”

“You also knew your weapon worked when you left base,” Adah countered. “You still checked it a minute ago.”

Anvil paused before replying. “Fair point.”

“One minute.” Castillo’s voice echoed through the compartment. Outside the VTOL, the ocean had been replaced by a dark, shadowed landscape, occasionally lit by errant moonlight slipping past thick clouds. And ahead of them, just on the horizon … a dull, white glow.

Petropavlovsk.

Owl rose, carefully slipping her rifle around her side to dock against her back, tilted both forward and to the side to keep the barrel as far from interfering with her movement as possible. The missile platform went next, resting on her left side and producing a slightly lopsided amount of weight to her shoulders, but not enough to be more than annoying.

Thirty seconds. The interior lights shifted, moving from the purer, white light they had been to a darker, dimmer blue light. As she understood it, an old holdover from earlier, more primitive night vision systems, but one that hadn’t ever really gone away even after the need had gone. Too many were simply used to it.

They swept over water once more, a bay around which the city had grown, their altitude dropping as they neared the far side. A moment later they were sliding between buildings, flying below roof level on the way to their LZ.

The first few times Owl had been aboard the Stalker when it had performed such a maneuver she’d felt her pulse spike, but after years of slipping into and out of cities with the same strategy, the move had become almost comfortingly familiar. Save for the few times when they’d run afoul of another aircraft trying the same maneuver.

Or that time in Nice we slammed into that drone. They never had found out who the small unit had belonged to, or what it had been running so quickly that it hadn’t had time to react to the stealth VTOL slipping out of the night. But the impact had put the entire team on edge for the rest of the op, even if things had gone smoothly.

“Ten seconds. Starboard hatch.”

Owl moved along with the rest of the team, making for the right hatch. Outside the engines began to twist, rotating and twisting as the VTOL slowed.

And then they were dropping even lower, the ground rushing up at them as they broke into a brief bit of clear air. Owl caught a glimpse of a large wall as it passed beneath the VTOL, followed by trees, and then they had stopped moving forward completely, dropping beneath the foliage into a grassy clearing that was small enough to admit the aircraft, but only just.

The side door opened, letting in the roiling hiss of the VTOL’s engines, and Owl jumped out, her feet sinking slightly into the grassy earth of the clearing as she darted past one of the engines, already heading for the trees. Behind her, the pitch of the gunship’s engines changed once more as it lifted off, dust and debris swirling through the night as the VTOL lifted off once more. A moment later, the hiss changed to a dull roar, and the VTOL was gone, vanishing off into the night, the sound of its engines fading.

She took a moment to orient herself as she slipped into the trees, her hud directing her eastward toward her target. Around her, the forest had a faintly grey cast to it beneath the effects of the light amplification software her equipment provided. Not enough to wipe out color, but enough that the colors that were there were muted. Faint.

From the look of it, their landing zone was a private park of some kind, grass, trees, bushes and flowers all split by winding brick paths that twisted beneath the trees. Which meant there was a chance that their arrival had been detected in some manner. Just not one that would give them cause for concern.

She moved through the trees at a full run, arms and legs pumping, eyes alert for any signs of trouble. Her passage wasn’t exactly silent, but it was far from loud. Behind her, she could hear Adah, Ursa, and Anvil moving through the trees as well, each at full speed. She stuck to the shadows, away from small ground lights, moving through the park like a wraith.

Ahead of her the wall around the park loomed, a fifteen-foot enclosure made of solid brick and topped with a small motion sensor that to her suit’s sophisticated sensors may as well have been a shrieking siren. She didn’t slow, one foot pushing off of the base of the wall and easily pushing her up and over the top. The motion sensors flashed as she passed, logging the movement. Undoubtedly there’d be a guard drone of some kind along in a few minutes, or an actual human guard if the park were looking to up their “luxury” status.

They’d already be gone, however, and even if they had been caught on camera, standard policy when heavily armed professional soldiers started moving through your territory was “look the other way.” It was simply smarter.

The street on the other side of the wall was mostly unoccupied this late at night, though she noted two individuals busy in what was probably a transaction of some sort down near one corner, both keeping to the shadows. Neither of them looked up as she landed, nor did any of them notice when the other three members of her team cleared the wall and landed behind her.

Which … said a lot, given the louder impacts left by Ursa and Anvil. Neither of the pair was especially light.

They moved through the city as quickly as they could, darting through alleys and dark places. More than once Owl called the team to a halt as a security drone whispered past, sensors alert for any suspicious activity, and on one occasion the whole team was forced to wait in an alley until an armored peacekeeper vehicle had rolled by.

Before long, however, they were close enough to their destination that they were forced to split, Owl heading due east while the rest of the team continued southward. Before long the streets began to move upward, and she was forced several times to change her course to avoid areas with active nightlife. Even so, her objective reared above the nearby rooftops like a beacon, standing tall amid several other high-rises at the peak of the hill.

She was able to move easier as it neared. The hill appeared to be a more well-off region of the city, the nightlife dying down and replaced by glowing holographic signs protesting curfew hours that were to be respected. The drones changed as well, growing more numerous and coming equipped with what looked like security stunners.

None of them noticed her as she slipped past. Even if she’d been working under a full moon, rather than the cloudy half-moonlight she was getting, there was little chance of a few cheap security drones catching her. Ursa, maybe, or Anvil, but not her. She was as silent as her moniker suggested.

She reached the side of her objective with a minute to spare. The rest of the team was likely near the compound now, though still to the northwest of it. They’d need another minute or two to make their way south as planned.

In theory. She wouldn’t know until she was in position. And that meant scaling the sides of a twelve-story building in the dark.

Easy. The lower levels of the building were bereft of porches or overhangs for her to use to aid her climb up, but the same couldn’t be said of the next closest structure whose roof she easily reached. From there it was a simple matter to leap across the street, thrusters firing to give her a little extra distance, and land on one of the upper-level balconies. From there she only had to make her way up, jumping from floor to floor until at last she reached the roof.

She took a quick look around, almost shaking her head at how easy it had been. The rooftop didn’t even host any security measures, bereft of any and all ornamentation save a simple lightning rod above what was clearly a rooftop access hatch.

Old design, she thought, her boots crunching over tarpaper as she made her way to the south side. Not even an atmospheric unit. Which meant it was probably one of the “aggressively normal” buildings that hid all its trappings internally to appear more modern. They’d been very popular around fifty years ago.

It was amazing how much one learned about architecture when they counted on it to serve as a sniper nest. At least there’s a small lip around the edge, she thought. Some buildings from that era didn’t even have that much, preferring a smooth-edged look.

To the south, the SoulComp compound was immediately obvious, a high-walled location in the center of the valley still brightly lit despite the hour. For a moment Owl crouched by the lip, running her gaze over the facility and mentally aligning each of the structures she could see with the map they’d been shown earlier.

There and … there, she thought, triggering her hud and marking the primary data center as well as its backup. And fairly clear views of each of them, just as I thought.

She set up the missile platform first, making sure it was secure on the tarpaper and pointed in the direction of the compound before moving back to the edge. A tripwire grenade came next—a non-lethal one, but deployed over the nearby hatch just in case she had somehow alerted someone and they came looking. Then she went prone, laying her body out across the rooftop, the barrel of her rifle just clearing the low lip as she sighted down its scope. The compound jumped into sharp relief, and she gave it a quick once-over, checking for any deviations from what they’d expected.

Patrol there … and patrol there … she thought, noting each pair as she passed them. Neither in armor. Not neural skinsuit armor, at least. They were wearing protective gear and carrying rifle, but she doubted any of their bullets were armor-piercing. They’d need to get a lucky shot on an actual skinsuit, rather than armor plating, to even have a chance at stopping anyone from their team.

Except Anvil. Anvil would literally be able to walk through them with complete impunity. Which wasn’t to say it would be a good idea, given what heavier weaponry was likely on site, but it was a good sign that none of that ordinance was on display.

Well, save the wall guns. She could see those quite clearly. Which was clearly the intent, a deterrent to any who would dare draw close. Five to a side they bristled, occasionally turning and twitching, more for show than for any real purpose.

She could see the anti-air systems too, three of them, mounted atop various structures inside the compound. The model wasn’t familiar, but the shapes were.

She brought her scope back to the south wall, watching as a security team lazily made its way alongside it. Any minute now … If the timing the team had worked out was still being kept to …

The patrol veered away from the wall, following a path so well-worn she could see it in the pavement they walked on. They vanished behind a building, only to appear a few moments later as they came around its corner, heading north.

As if they’d been watching, waiting for the pair to disappear, an armored head appeared above the edge of the wall, sliding up and over it in a smooth, practiced motion and dropping to the ground below. Two more figures followed, one larger, one bulkier.

Adah, Ursa, and Anvil. They broke immediately, Adah and Ursa walking quickly north straight toward the primary data center while doing their best to not look as though they were walking quickly, while Anvil went east, sticking as closely as she could to what shadows there were around the compound.

Owl tapped her wrist, one of her spotter drones detaching from her shoulder and lifting into the air. A small image appeared in the corner of her visor a moment later, the tiny drone zooming in on the three team members and matching her view. Another tap, and it began to follow Anvil as best it could across the compound, tracking her position and the area around it while Owl kept an eye on Adah and Ursa. So far, both teams looked to be following a clear path.

Nice and easy, Owl thought, watching the trio as they made their separate ways through the compound. Nice and easy. More than once she had to watch and wait as Adah and Ursa slowed, allowing a patrol to pass up ahead without too close of a look. Or as Anvil adjusted her route, keeping away from patrols of her own.

She took a slow, careful breath. Almost halfway to the main data core. Anvil was lagging a little behind, but not much. Fair, as she needed to be a bit more careful about who saw her without making it too obvious that was what she was doing.

Nice and easy. She pulled her gaze away from the scope for a moment, taking in the compound as a whole. Nice and—

She jammed her visor back up against the scope, whipping the barrel of her rifle across the compound and abandoning for the moment her watch over Adah and Ursa.

Something was going on at the garage. The doors were opening, bright, interior light spilling out into the compound. People looked to be shouting, hurrying as they ran.

She glanced at her hud, then cursed. “Bèn—!” She’d left her comms on the secure channel her team was using. Not scanning the bands of the compound. She tapped at her wrist once more, thickly accented voices flooding her helmet.

“—a minute! Get those Dingos moving! Where are the broskinovs!?”

Owl snapped the scope across the compound, toward the barracks where she could already see figures clad in dark blue-and-gold skinsuit armor pouring out of the building. A dozen, maybe more. All armed.

Shit. The only consolation she could see was that none of them appeared to be heading for either data center or any of the fireteam. Still, it was something the team needed to know.

“Squad.” She kept her voice light and low, just in case someone was listening, or starting questioning where her transmission was coming from. “Dog is awake, heading for the front gate.”

There was no reply, nor had she expected one. She did noticed Anvil slowing slightly, however, her armored head turning toward the front entrance to the compound. Where one of the dingo APCs was now rolling out on large, heavy tires, surrounded by several of the security troopers.

A drill? That’d be just our luck.

But it didn’t feel right for a drill. The voices she was hearing over the comm network were too panicked for the deployment to be a simple drill. And judging from the tone of command she was picking up in conjunction with the gestures from a very official looking individual now arriving at the garage, the compound’s manager was there themselves to take control of whatever was going on.

Definitely not a drill then. And not anyone having spotted the fireteam either. If they had, they’d be taking very different positions, even if they were trying to set up an ambush. Instead, they were definitely getting arrayed before the front gate, like they were—

Greeting someone. She pulled her head back, looking over the city, and spotted it in seconds.

A convoy of some kind. Moving down the main road toward the complex at full speed. Six vehicles in total, and all large.

She shifted her view, peering at the newcomers through her scope and trying to keep pace with them long enough to identify what and who they were.

Her stomach flipped. The white and blue trim was immediately recognizable, as was the flag printed on the side of each of the two heavily armored carriers leading the convoy, as well as the sides of the four heavy-duty transport trucks behind them. A white image of earth on a field of blue, surrounded by two olive branches.

Shit! She keyed her comm. “UN convoy!” Probably here for the same thing we are. Which … did go a long way to explaining why their client had been in such a hurry. And if they took command of the compound while the team was still inside it …

On her hud, Anvil broke into a run, sprinting for the backup facility. Owl rolled her vantage back over to the front gate, where the first of the dingos was already parked inside, a row of security troops and armored skinsuits standing at attention in front of it. Meanwhile the convoy had pulled off of the main road, rolling up toward the front of the compound at high speed. One when they were a hundred feet away from the gate itself did they begin to slow, the barrier dropping down into the ground to grant them passage.

Unfortunately, or perhaps by design, the SoulComp dingo was parked in such a way that neither of the heavier UN APCs could pull past it without being rude, and both of them slowed to a stop, only enough room for one of the heavy trucks to pull in behind them. Rear hatches opened on all three, UN peacekeepers rushing out in their riot gear.

The comm channel had gone completely silent as both sides lined up. Then one of the UN officials stepped forward, clad in riot gear like the rest of them, but holding a datapad rather than a gun. A moment later she spoke, her voice echoing across the open channel.

“Per UN authority and in response to a decision of the United States of America Federal Court, SoulComp and all its holdings are now UN property.”

Yup, we were hired to make sure whatever’s on these cores wasn’t here when the UN arrived.

“This facility, including all personal, employees, and contracted individuals—“

There wasn’t time to think through a decision. She needed to act, and fast. The SoulComp contingent already had their fingers on their triggers. They just needed a spark.

“—are now under UN—“

She fired. The bullet crossed the distance between herself and the compound before she had time to blink,  punching through the head of one of the SoulComp security guards and dropping their body to the ground. The shock of the event stunned even the UN officer speaking into silence.

At least until one of the security officers snapped their rifle up, letting off a burst that staggered the officer back.

Then pandemonium exploded as both sides opened fire, cutting one another down in swathes of high-volume firepower. The Dingo opened fire with its remote gun, its ammunition heavy enough to cut right through the light riot gear the peacekeepers wore, further cutting down their number, and the skinsuit-armored SoulComp guards dove for cover as both the UN APCs opened up in return, hosing the courtyard down with fire.

Owl was already prepared, the laser beneath the barrel of her rifle sighting in on one of the UN vehicles. A sharp whoosh sounded behind her as one of the guided missiles fired from the platform she’d brought, arcing through the sky and across the valley to come down on top of one of the armored carriers. It punched through the roof, detonating inside and gutting the APC with a blast that shook it on its armored tires. Then the wall guns opened up, adding their constant cracks the cacophony as dozens of UN peacekeepers spilled out of the remaining trucks, firing in kind.

It wouldn’t take long for someone to trace the source of her missile. There was a chance the SoulComp forces would assume she was one of their own, but UN forces she’d just fired on, not so much.

She squeezed the Adder’s trigger back, the sharp kick almost equal to the sudden snapping motion her target’s head made as the bullet took him in the eye, the binoculars he’d been lifting to spot where she’d been falling to the pavement.

She didn’t notice. She’d already brought her laser down atop one of the heavy transport trucks and triggered the firing stud, another missile rising into the night sky behind her on a pillar of flame. A second later the back end of the truck exploded, metal fragments and fire ripping the cloth covering over the back bed to shreds and cutting down another dozen UN peacekeepers.

There was no time to admire her work as she turned and fired once more.

*             *             *

The sudden boom and cascade of gunfire from the direction of the front gate called an end to the stealthy portion of their mission. A flash of fire lifted over the tops of the nearby buildings, Ursa glancing at Adah for a bare moment before throwing herself forward into a run. The sound of her armored feet pounding against the pavement merged with the heavy, distant thumps of the sentry guns atop the walls, forming a strange sort of music alongside the lighter cracks of small-arms fire.

It took only seconds for the SoulComp comm channels to come to life, orders screamed and shouted as the situation at the front gate deteriorated into a full-out firefight. Ursa rushed past a security patrol, both of them so shocked or engrossed by the new orders coming through their helmets that they didn’t even glace at her or Adah as they ran past.

Ahead of them the center of the compound loomed, a somewhat pyramidal structure with smooth sides. And old design, done in the mimicry of real megascrapers and designed to evoke a similar look. Personally, it’d never worked. It just made the building look weird.

At the moment it didn’t really matter, however. She rushed up the path to the front entrance, hand outstretched even before she’d come close enough for the scanners to pick her up. Another patrol shouted in surprise as she passed them by, but once more they were either too focused on what was happening at the front gate to pay her much mind, or the color scheme of her armor had been enough to dispel suspicion.

It worked, but it was annoying. It was weird not seeing her tatau every time she glanced at her armor. At least the temporary coloration would wash off under the proper chemical bath back at base.

She slapped her hand down on the scanner by the door, visor immediately going to the cameras she couldn’t see but knew were on both sides of the frame. Come on … come on … Adah skidded to a halt behind her, and a single glance at her body language was all it took to see she was thinking the same thing.

This had better work. Her suit was feeding the building’s security systems their contact had given them, but if they didn’t work … She could see the faint lines above the door that signified a weapon emplacement of some kind. And the subtle reinforcing over the door itself, despite it being made of mostly glass.

Well, glass in function. Any glass door with a weapon emplacement above it wasn’t nearly as easy to get into as it looked. She glanced at her hand again, then the part of her hud with the clearance codes scrolling past. Come on … The gunfire from the front of the compound was leveling out, settling into a clearer rhythm with each passing second, both sides digging in as the initial chaos of combat faded.

Come on! If the codes didn’t go through, then the first step would be to slap one of the det-packs she was carrying on the glass. Past that the entryway was pretty much a standard double-door security checkpoint, one guard station behind the left wall, and another, tougher-looking door at the end of a short hall. That door, according to the map they’d been given, led to the elevator.

Blow the door, shoot the guard, blow the next door. Elevator will be locked, but there will be an emergency access hatch on the roof. Datacore is on the third floor, so it’s a short climb—

With a faint chime barely audible over the gunfire sounded, followed by a heavy clunk as the locks holding the front doors in place disengaged. A moment later the door slid to one side, Ursa all but throwing herself through it in her haste to get inside.

“That’s—“ the guard from behind the enclosure began, only to be cut off by Adah.

“Open the other door!” she shouted. “We don’t have much time!”

“I don’t—“ There was another scanner by the guard’s desk, and Adah slapped her hand down atop it, cutting them off.

“The UN is here,” Adah said, her visor staring down at the guard through the security screen. “For the core. We don’t have much time. You saw our clearance. Let us in.”

The guard swallowed, but nodded. “Yes sir.” A moment later another tone sounded, and the door at the other end of the hall opened. Adah broke away from the desk without another word, sliding into the elevator alongside Ursa.

They were still operating under comm-silence, so she settled for giving Adah a nod rather than speaking. Nicely done. Adah didn’t react, but Ursa knew she’d seen the gesture.

Technically, even that had been a risk, as there were undoubtedly cameras in the elevator. With luck, however, the urgency of their appearance combined with their clearance and the firefight at the gate would keep whoever was on security duty for the center preoccupied for just a minute longer …

The elevator reached the third floor, the door sliding open and exposing a long, plain, carpeted hallway. Ursa disembarked first, moving down the hall and checking the small map in the upper right corner of her hud. The hall terminated in a right turn, moved along the outside of the building, turned right again … and then met the hallway that would lead to the datacore, passing various offices along the way.

She rounded the first turn, one hand dragging at the corner of the intersection to help her make the abrupt change in direction. She could hear Adah’s boots pounding along behind her as she ran down the hall, passing office after office, the doors tightly shut. What do these people even do? Probably menial busy work, the sort of thing that could be done by computers—and was—but had to be repeated by the “human” touch to satisfy the UN’s human employment laws. Ahead of her the next intersection loomed, and she took it at a run, her fingers leaving divots in the wall as she turned.

The intersection was just ahead, a distance of only a second or two at the speeds she was moving. She brought her hand out to drag along the wall again, throwing her weight into the turn as she began to round the corner—

And then instinct took over, her hand coming away from the wall, her feet lifting to tuck under her and sending her flying past the intersection as the three security guards arrayed at the other end of the hall opened fire. Two shots struck against her armor, bouncing off the panels on her upper arm and calf, adding a slight spin to her trajectory, and she hit the ground in a roll, going with the momentum and flipping herself up and over to a standing position with one hand. Back across the intersection Adah slid to a stop, her rifle coming up and her visor already locked with Ursa’s.

Even without speaking, Ursa could hear the question in the look, and she held up three fingers before making a squeezing fist. “How many? Three. Squishies.” No armor to speak of. Which wasn’t the same as “no armor” but it was a far cry from there being someone in a neural skinsuit or an exoskeleton lying in wait for them.

“Whoever you are,” one of the guards shouted as Ursa drew her Rezzer. “Surrender or—“

They both exploded around the corner, opening fire as soon as they’d drawn a target. Only one of the guards managed to get a shot off in return, their fire passing through the air just inches from Ursa. Her own shot took them in an unarmored shoulder, shredding flesh and muscle and putting them out of the fight. She moved to fire at the third and last guard, but Adah had already taken care of them, her second shot catching the man right above his collarbone. A glance at her first target, lying in pain on the ground, showed that it’d been the primary target of choice there as well.

All three were down and in obvious pain. Ursa rushed down the hall, pausing only long enough to kick their weapons away before checking the door. The red flashing light by the scanner told her all she needed to know: It was locked, and it was likely her clearance wouldn’t see her through. She checked anyway, only for the scanner to let out a faint beep and flash quickly.

She turned toward Adah and shook her head. A quick check of the guard’s station showed that the override behind it was similarly locked, and a quick punch to one of the walls confirmed that they were reinforced just as the door was.

“You …” One of the guards had pushed his way up. “You’re locked out. You’re not getting in. Whoever you are.” They shoved themselves up against one wall, letting out a pained cry as they did so.

Ursa turned her full attention back to the door. It was heavy, reinforced, and clearly had multiple points of contact to keep it sealed if someone had hit a panic button somewhere.

Four det-packs. That might be able to make an opening. But then they’d be left without a good way to get rid of the datacore.

There’s got to be another way in. Their client would have expected them to run into trouble. What would actual SoulComp employees have done if someone—?

Of course. She stepped over to the guard station, where another smaller scanner sat behind the terminal, waiting for clearance codes. She placed her hand atop it, waiting for her suit to answer the connection, and a moment later there was a series of heavy thumps from the security door as the locks disengaged. The scanner by the door would just be locked out, but the one behind the station would have to answer higher orders. She could hear the disbelieving stammer from the lone talking guard as the door began to open.

Only for a grenade to come flying through the widening gap as soon as there was room. There wasn’t time to speak or shout warning, only react. Her hand lashed out, backhanding the grenade down the hall in the direction it had already been traveling and sending it skipping off the wall. She barely had time to dive behind the small security station before it detonated with a sharp bang and a flash of light so bright her visor’s flash protection couldn’t quite keep up,  her view going completely black rather than blinding her or attempting to see through it.

Her vision was already coming back as the glare faded, blurry but enough that she could see the barrel of a weapon poking through the still-opening doorway, clasped in armored hands.

A Rezzer shotgun. Like hers. And held in the hands of a neural skinsuit user.

She rose from the ground in a rush, slapping the barrel of the figure’s gun upward and out of the way just a bare moment before it fired, flechettes tearing into the ceiling. Then it was brutal melee, her weight crashing into theirs and shoving them back through the widening doorway. Screams sounded around her as they crashed through a glass desk, shattering it into thousands of pieces, tumbling over one another backwards. Their leg came up to kick her along, but she shoved it aside with one knee, landing atop her foe and using the force of the impact to wrench the shotgun out of their hands and toss it aside. One hand went to her waist—

Another guard slammed into her side in a tackle, throwing her off of the first even as she tucked her weight to the side, working her leg up and shoving hard upwards. The grip around her shoulders slipped, and then her assailant let go, flipping up and over a desk to land on their feet.

“Whoever you ar—“ It was all the further he got before she slammed into him, battering aside his lackluster defense with one hand and shoulder-checking them hard enough that they flew through the glass desk behind him. She was atop him in an instant, not letting him regain his balance as she pummeled his face with blows until the visor cracked.

A chair smashed into her head from behind, the impact hard enough to make her ears ring and stagger her to one side. Not the first time. She spun, catching the now bent chair in one hand and yanking hard. The wielder stumbled forward rather than letting go, and her other fist came around in a haymaker, slamming into their visor and punching through it, blood spraying as she shattered their nose. Even as they started to slump, out of the fight, she spun, whipping the chair around and throwing it at their companion. They ducked smoothly under it, but then she was one them, battering them with blow after blow and staggering them back. The impacts were heavy enough that she could hear each snapping crack as her fists slammed into composite plates.

Then she saw her opening, and battered a desperate fist aside one last time, her hand wrapping around a hilt at her attacker’s waist. She took a single step forward, inside their reach, the same hand pulling back and then stabbing up.

Embedding her foes’ knife cleanly into the flesh under their arm. Her opponent staggered back, visor turning to look down at the hilt in shock. It had been buried up to the quillion in her armpit, sticking out almost at a horizontal angle. One hand came up slowly to grab it, and Ursa caught it.

“You sure you want to do that?” she asked. “That blade was long enough to nick your lung if the angle was off. You pull that out, you might do more damage.”

Which was true. The suit was already trying to seal itself, foam mixing with blood around the edges of the wound, but if they pulled the knife out …

“You’re outmatched,” Ursa said, giving them a gentle shove in the direction of an abandoned office chair and helping them stumble back into it. “Sure, you could stand up, pull that knife out, and hope your enhanced physiology keeps you from bleeding out long enough to do some damage to me. But you’re unarmed, and meanwhile …” She motioned to her own knife, resting below her ribs opposite her grenades. “I still have mine, and I already beat you once. Plus now you’re wounded. You can sit here and live, or, well …” She shrugged, spreading her hands. “I won’t kill you if I won’t have to. Got it?”

There was a moment’s pause, and then the armored figure nodded.

“Good.” Ursa stepped back, taking a quick look around the rest of the room. It was laid out exactly like she’d expected it to look from the map they’d been given. A heavily reinforced, circular office for data analysts circling a final layer of glass—mostly for climate control—and a bunch of servers. But there near the middle, hooked into each of the servers was a massive cylindrical datacore, almost three feet tall and probably weighing a quarter of what she did outside of her armor, maybe more.

Adah stepped up next to her, passing the Rezzer she’d dropped in the hall over. She had, Ursa noticed, tied up the three regular employees in the room while Ursa had been fighting. Each of them was bound hand-and-foot by plastic zip-ties.

“Thanks,” Ursa said, giving her a nod as she accepted the Rezzer. “Think that glass is just glass?”

“Only one fun way to find out.”

Ursa smiled. “I like it when you phrase orders that way.” She lifted the Rezzer and fired, the glass shattering into thousands of tiny cubes.

“Guess not,” Adah said. She stepped over the remains of the window, the glass cubes crunching beneath her boot like so much gravel, and up to the datacore. “Charges?”

“Here,” Ursa said, her own boot knocking away part of the glass that had been left upright as she stepped forward. It shattered across the once-clean interior of the enclosure. “One and two.” Adah took them and slapped them into place on opposite sides around the middle of the datacore.

“Time?” Adah asked.

“Twenty seconds,” she replied, glancing back at the five figures strewn about the room and docking her Rezzer across her back. “Enough time to pull everyone out.”

“Got it. Arming … and mark!”

Ursa was already stepping across the room toward the two armored guards she’d incapacitated, stooping to grab each of them by the plates by their neck and drag them back across the room toward the security door. Adah had done the same, grabbing each of the three employees she’d tied up by their feet.

“Open your mouth,” Ursa said, glancing at them. “It’ll help.”

A few seconds later a harsh, heavy thud erupted from direction of the data core, the sound feeling like a bass-drum impact against her armor. A quick glance back told her everything she needed to know, even as red emergency lights lit up all around the now slagged datacore.

She touched a hand to the side of her head. “That’s ‘A’ down.”

Owl’s voice came back. “Get clear fast. UN’s pushing in your direction, and it looks like they might break out.”

Adah’s voice joined the channel. “’B?’”

“No word,” Owl said. “Not yet.”

*             *             *

Anvil hesitated for a moment before slapping the side of her helmet with one hand. “Hey, this isn’t exactly easy.” She pulled her other arm back, suit whining and concrete cracking beneath her boots as the next security door began to slowly grind open. Off to one side, a hole in the wall marked where she’d broken her way through to some of the hydraulic lines helping hold the security door shut. Currently they were oozing the thick fluid, with the occasional spurt as the door gave slightly. “Granted, it’s about to get a lot easier, but …”

She adjusted her grip, taking the door in two hands rather than one, mentally cursing their client. Whoever they were, their intel on the backup hadn’t been as up to date as they’d thought. Her clearance was enough to get her through the outer entryways, but the moment someone somewhere had hit the panic button, that had stopped. Leaving her with one last door between herself and the objective.

Come on you— The let out another metallic shriek, shifting an eighth of an inch. Good enough. She ran her gaze around the edges, eyeing the spots were the ceiling and floor had warped. That was where the pins locking the door in place were kept. And, well, with all the noise going on outside …

She stepped back and drew her MMR, clicking the safety off and aiming it at the top portion of the door, right where the wall had buckled the most. Just a little to the left and … She squeezed the trigger.

A barrage of micro-rockets leapt from the barrel with a roar, slamming into the buckled wall and detonating in a cascade of explosions. She let her finger off the trigger in an instant, snapped the rifle to the lower buckling, then fired again, another chorus of explosions reverberating up and down the hall. Metal fragments pinged off of her suit, the impacts barely noticeable behind the explosion as the armor-piercing explosives tore through the walls.

Then it was over, the roar of the detonations fading and the rolling explosions stopping as she examined her handiwork. Not bad, she thought as she docked the MMR back across her back. She could clearly see the twisted masses of metal that had once been reinforced locking pins for the security door, three to a side and almost an inch-and-a-half thick.

Only one of them had survived her barrage. The rest had been chewed apart, destroyed by the barrage of firepower meant for dealing with heavy armor. The space beyond it hadn’t fared very well either, sparks and franticly flashing lights hinting that her fusillade had done damage there as well.

But only one of the pins was still intact. Not nearly enough to hold her armor back. Anvil grinned as she stepped up to the door again, digging her fingers into its contours and heaving as hard as she could.

With a horrific snap, the final pin gave, the door sliding to one side and sending a sharp spray of hydraulic fluid spraying across the hall.

Right, Anvil thought as she stepped forward into the small space beyond the door. Now I just need to find the … She stared down at the datacore sitting in the middle of the room, surrounded by what looked like small servers of some kind. Many of which, she noted, were showing signs of damage from her missile barrage. After all that, it’s just right there. Nice and easy.

“The UN has broken through. Counting at least a dozen in neural armor.”

Well, relatively easy. She attached two of the det-packs she’d been given to the middle of the datacore, and then with a shrug stuck a third on top. That left one spare, and there was not sense in not being thorough.

Keyed together … she thought, tapping the controls on the side of the pack with one large armored finger. Five seconds and … go!

The devices armed, she took a step back, counting down in time with the small display on each of the detonators. All three hit zero and then—

With a sharp, synchronized thud, all three detonated, driving their explosions inward and pulverizing the datacore.

And I’m done and on it, Anvil thought with a grin, lifting one hand to her head and triggering her comms. “’B’ is flat and out,” she said. “Repeat, ‘B’ is—“

The floor shook just as Owl cut across the comm channel. “Enemy armor pulling out of the garage. Can’t get a good look at it, but it just iced the last UN APC.”

Well, that changes things. Anvil tapped at her suit controls, switching her comm to open status. Stealth was pretty much a waste at this point anyway. “Understood Owl. Get me a profile and let me know if it moves toward either of our positions.”

There was another rumble underfoot as she turned and began making her way out of the backup center, and a moment later Owl’s voice was across the comms again. “They just lost another truck.”

“Tank?” Anvil asked as she stepped over a large puddle of hydraulic oil.

“Definitely a cannon, that’s all I can tell you. Maybe … hundred-and-ten millimeter from the audio I’m getting.”

Anvil rolled her eyes at the returned calm to Owl’s voice. And this is why I don’t invite you drinking, Owl. You’re too chill all the time. Like … ice chill.

As she neared the front door, one hand reaching to yank it open, it slid aside, exposing a SoulComp guard with a rifle and stunned look on their face as they panned their eyes up to her head.

“Sta—“ She wasn’t quite sure what they’d been about to say. Probably some variant on “stand down” or something similarly stupid. Because stupid was all it could be called when delivering the order to someone in powered exoskeleton. She batted the guard aside without a thought, the blow sending them flying across the compound grounds.

Another rumble rolled through the air, a sharp boom echoing from nearby as SoulComp’s tank fired again. “A tank,” Anvil said as she drew her MMR. “Why do they have a tank?”

“Says the woman who wants to own several tanks,” Ursa answered over the comm channel. The boom echoed once more, a fireball exploding into the night sky from the front gate.

“That’s a hobby,” Anvil replied as she took a quick look around, checking for threats. None leapt out at her, but she kept the MMR at the ready just in case. “And I’m a mercenary. Totally different. Do we have an extraction plan yet?”

“Commander’s working on it,” Adah said. “Something’s going on with local air traffic. Just keep your head down for a minute.”

Easier said than done, Anvil thought as she slipped into the shadowed backside of the backup unit. I’m the biggest target out of all of us. A few buildings down a half-dozen or so guards ran around the corner, breaking in her direction, though it didn’t appear they’d noticed her yet. She slid back toward the east side of the building.

“Got it.” Owl’s voice was a welcome distraction. “It’s a TR-62.”

Anvil stopped. “You’re sure?”

“No,” Owl said, her calm voice almost grating. “It looks modified. But it’s the closest match my system can find.”

“It’s probably modified,” Anvil said, slinking her way back around  the side of the backup center. “That’s a hundred and twenty-five millimeter gun then, stock, for the Russian military. One coaxial machine gun, plus a pintle gun. All semi-autonomous. It’s half a century old, but it’s still dangerous.”

“Yeah, I kind of got that when Owl said tank,” Ursa said. “What about sensors and comms. Can it pick us up?”

“Probably not,” Anvil said, peering around the corner to see if she’d been followed. “Unless they’ve completely renovated its comm suite.”

“Can you take it out?”

“With an MMR? It’d be risky, but I could do it. The machine guns might do some damage, but the real risk would be the main gun, on it?” Another sharp boom rolled across the compound as if punctuating her words, overpowering the distant but constant rattle of smaller arms fire. “Any word on that exit, Adah? The longer we’re stuck here, the more likely it gets I have to deal with that tank.”

“You hoping for that?” Ursa cut in. “You’ve done it before.”

“And it’s not fun every ti—”

“Exit’s gotten a little complicated with the wall guns online,” Adah said, and Anvil snapped her jaw shut. “Worse, command’s picking up a lot of inbound traffic. UN traffic, heavy military. We’ve got about twenty minutes. They scrambled as soon as things here went hot.”

“Right,” Anvil said, scowling. “I hope this paycheck is worth it. What’s the plan?”

“The Stalker can be here in thirty seconds, but with the AA systems online and the compound on high alert, even with stealth systems that doesn’t stop someone from just looking at us and shooting us down.”

“So our options are …” Ursa began.

“Simple,” Adah continued. “North wall. Take out the sentry guns, plus the northernmost AA emplacement, then go over the wall and catch the Stalker on the other side of the north mountain. Any questions?”

Anvil turned and looked northward, eyeing the distant wall. It wasn’t too far away. Neither was the nearest anti-aircraft system. “I can take the AA from here—“

“No,” Adah said, cutting her off. “Ursa and I will take it. You deal with the wall guns. Got it?”

“On it.” North middle would be the best for keeping from those other guns. If I can get there without trouble …

She started slow, but picked up her pace as soon as she was away from the backup center, rushing past the backside of building after building as she headed north. At some point, someone would probably see her a camera somewhere, and unlike Ursa and Adah she was a lot more conspicuous, but … In another minute that won’t matter.

“Squad? That tank is turning north. Looks like it’s coming your way.”

And there it is, on it? She picked up speed, the sound of her armored boots echoing around her as she ran.

A rifle cracked a moment later, bullets whizzing past, and she turned to see one of the security guards firing at her. Part of her wanted to stop and let their bullets hit, just in the hopes that they would realize how stupid they were being … But if there is a TR-62 on the way I don’t want to be here when it arrives.

She could still fill it full of holes. The TR-62 had been a good tank for the era it was built in, but compared to modern armor and island metals it had fallen off quite a bit. A magazine of MMR fire would be more than enough to either incapacitate it or heavily damage it.

It was surviving the firepower it threw back in return that was the hard part.

The wall was just ahead now, and she broke out away from the buildings at last, into the open as she lifted her MMR and sighted on the nearest sentry gun. She’d fired, let off the trigger, moved her rifle to another target and fired again before the first cascade of missiles had struck home. Sometimes the longer travel time of the micro-missiles was a liability, but currently …

By the time the system realized it was under attack, turrets spinning to react to her presence, there were only two she hadn’t fired at yet, and she opened up on one of them just as it began to fire at her, bullets bouncing off of her armor but doing little more than scratching the already temporary paint job.

The same couldn’t be said of the missiles she’d fired, however. They slammed into the sentry gun and detonated, slicing through what little armor it had and cooking off its ammo supply in a titanic chorus of bangs. The fifth and final turret met the same fate as its fellows an instant later, and she ejected the MMR’s empty mag, watching as it burned.

“Time to go.” Two familiar figures raced past her, and she slammed the now-empty MMR onto her back, ducking to catch up to Adah and Ursa as they raced for the wall. From behind them there was another dull thump, and a moment later Owl’s voice cut across the comm channel.

“AA’s down. Tank’s close.”

Ahead of Anvil, Ursa hit the wall first, up and over it in moments. Adah followed a bare moment later, rushing right up and over it.

“Move it!”

She jumped, sailing over the wall as behind her the tank fired at last, its shot slamming into the wall as she sailed over it and punching right through it, mortar flying in all directions. The shot continued on, the front of the building across the street exploding as it plowed through it.

“Go!” Then they were rushing up the street, running up the hill as behind them the tank fired again, blowing out another part of the wall. Anvil tapped the controls on her suit, giving her a partial rear view on her hud, and was rewarded with the sight of the TR-62 smashing through the gap it had blown through the wall, treads grinding brick to powder as its turret swiveled again.

“Break!” She headed her own shout, throwing herself to the right and through the front windows of some small business, glass cascading around her as the tank fired once more, the shell slamming into the road and sending chunks of asphalt flying in all directions.

“Anvil?” Ursa sounded tired. “Can you handle this thing? Because that wasn’t fun.”

“Give me a moment,” she said as she pushed herself up, broken glass falling from her shoulders. Break line of sight first.

Without hesitating she dove forward, smashing through the side wall of the small business and crashing into what looked like a diner. She powered on, bashing through the next wall, live wires sparking and sizzling as she snapped them in half but nothing doing more than setting off faint alarms as she found herself in a corner lot selling clothing that looked at least a decade out of date. And probably was.

She could hear the tank too, her own suit’s systems already tracking its position relative to her own as it ground up the street.

There was a bench resting nearby and she kicked it, sending it smashing through the storefront’s windows and out into the street. Then she dove for cover inside the store, ducking down behind one of the racks of close and yanking her MMR from her back.

Empty. Of course it was. “Dammit.” She kept the curse quiet enough that it wouldn’t go out over the comms. There was little sense in worrying the rest of the team.

There were spare magazines attached to her armor, and she pulled one of them away carefully, staying as quiet as possible as the TR-62 ground to a halt in the intersection outside, hunting. Easy does it. The metal mag slipped into the bottom of the large rifle with a faint rasp, and she pressed it upward until it hit home with a click.

Automatic gunfire sprayed through the storefront at head level, whizzing past her as the tank opened fire with its small guns, trying to flush her out. Now or never, on it? She racked the bolt back and rolled to one side, coming out prone on her belly with the MMR raised, her finger down even before she’d settled her position.

Micro-missiles exploded out of the barrel, screaming through the front windows and smashing against the side of the tank sitting just outside it. The force of the explosions were enough to make the tank shudder as she walked her fire across the turret, shredding metal and armor in equal amounts.

The magazine ran empty and she rolled back out of sight once more, ejecting the magazine and running for her life.

The tank fired, but the shot came nowhere close to hitting her, smashing through the rear of the store and probably doing serious structural damage to the building as a whole. Anvil threw herself into a slide, her heavy armor tearing carpet as she hid herself behind a checkout kiosk.

More automatic fire tore through the store around her, but it was unguided. Saturation. They were firing blind.

Or wanted her to think they were firing blind. There was always the chance that they were trying to bait her. She waited, loading a fresh magazine into her MMR.

Sensors gone. Go for power cells in rear next. The cells were close to the main drive motors, and should take them both out. A weakness with the TR-62 that had later been improved in the 67.

“Decoying.” Adah’s voice came across the comms moments before the fire from the tank cut off, the heavy vehicle’s motors whining as it spun in place. Over it came the distinct sounds of a rifle cracking away, followed by faint plinks as the shots bounced off the tank’s armor.

Prime.

Anvil rose and fired, focusing her fire on the weaker rear armor over the primary power cells. There was a flash and a gout of smoke through the explosions, and she ducked an instant before one of the cells detonated, shredding the rear of the tank and utterly halting its forward momentum.

It was good, but it wasn’t dead yet. She rose, emptying the rest of her magazine into the rear of the tank turret and not letting go of the trigger until the last impact from the missiles had passed.

The rear of the tank—what she and her suit could see through the smoke—was a wreck, both the main body and the turret. Metal and armor had been twisted and blown apart, and she could even make out what looked like pieces of the rear main gun through the gaping wounds she’d carved in the turret.

The TR-62 had been armored, but not compared to modern missile technology. It was well and truly dead.

Two minutes later, Anvil sank back in her seat aboard the VTOL as they shot away from Petropavlovsk, slipping past dozens of UN VTOLS as they made for the sea of …

Ah, whatever it’s called, she thought, letting out another sigh as she looked over at the rest of the team. All of them were still fully suited, like she was. A precaution just in case their stealth wasn’t quite as quiet as they’d hoped.

But as they passed over the sea, staying low to keep their flight as quiet as possible, the post-mission tension eased away, until finally Adah pulled her helmet off and gave the rest of them a smile.

“Nice job team. Things got a little hot, but we adapted. Not a bad op.”

“Eh.” Anvil detached her helmet, cool air rushing across her skin as she pulled it away. “Personally, I’ll wait on that until we find out how much we were paid. MM rounds aren’t cheap.”

“I can answer that, actually.”

Anvil looked up at the ceiling as Commander Castillo’s voice filled the cabin. “How much?”

“The client’s payment already cleared. Twenty-eight million euromarks.”

“No shit?” It almost felt foolish to be staring wide-eyed up at the roof of the cabin, but for such a payout. “You’re not kidding us, on it?”

“I am not. Congratulations, Fireteam. Each of you is richer by about five million euromarks apiece after that operation.”

“Well,” Ursa said, pulling her own helmet off and giving the rest of them a wide grin. “I think it’s safe to say that if they offer us another job, we should definitely take a look at it. If someone’s that desperate to bleed cash …”

“They probably were,” Owl said, and then she pulled her own helmet off. “It makes sense. And they knew the UN was coming.”

“So?” Ursa asked.

“Who would have enough money to pay so lavishly, as well as the information and clearance they provided us with on such short notice, so quickly after the UN began taking control of the company?” Owl asked. “Most likely someone within the company, a board member or high-ranking corporate manager. Quite possibly with something to hide from the UN that they couldn’t wipe on their own, so they hired us to ensure the data was never found.”

For a few seconds the interior of the VTOL was silent as each of them digested the information. Then Anvil shrugged, her armored shoulders sliding over one another. “Oh well.”

Ursa lifted one eyebrow. “Oh well? That’s it?”

“Sometimes you just have to roll with what life gives you,” she said, grinning. “And in this case it takes the shape of more than enough money for me to pick up that Abrams at long last and start taking ‘er apart, on it? So as far as I’m concerned, it’s all prime. Hell, with things being the way they are these days, we might get a few more jobs out of ‘em before the UN catches wind if Owl’s right about things.”

Ursa grinned. “As long as they don’t catch us? Sounds prime to me.”

“And if not,” Anvil said, lying back slightly and giving the team a grin back. “Well, sometimes you just get lucky, and you’ve gotta role with it, right?”

“Right,” Adah said. “And on that note, good work out there, team. I know we haven’t debriefed yet, but we did pretty good. All of you.”

Anvil nodded and sank back further in her seat, the metal creaking. Five million euromarks for that? Talk about a great start to the day, even if was a little early.

And I even got to blow up a tank.

The VTOL flew for home.


 

 

And that’s the end of Episode 1. If you’ve got comments, leave them below! Thanks for reading!

Fireteam Freelance is copyright 2020 Max Florschutz, all rights reserved.

3 thoughts on “Fireteam Freelance – Episode 1: Kamchatka

  1. That tank… that was satisfying. Almost ended a little too quickly. I like how the action isn’t all action, and there’s character in there, and those characters occasionally (looking at you here, Owl) make little mistakes that make them feel more human.
    I do kinda feel like Commander Castillo’s been oversold a little, though. At the moment, she feels more like a glorified pilot who just finds the quests, tells the team, and then carries them to the destination, while keeping an eye on how they’re doing between missions. No offense, but maybe Adah should be promoted. She did a pretty good job of planning the whole op out, after all! 😛

    Like

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